Nikos Kazantzakis

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Nikos Kazantzakis Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

It has been said that Nikos Kazantzakis tells one story and that his novels, plays, and poems merely provide different historical backdrops to a single universal theme: the struggle of man to learn the truth about himself and about God. There is little doubt that man’s search for God is at the center of all of Kazantzakis’s writings, and his early philosophical tract, Salvatores Dei: Asketike (1927; The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, 1960), provides a gloss for his entire life’s work. Initially a follower of Nietzsche, who had proclaimed the death of God, Kazantzakis adopted the belief that the God of the Christian and Jewish traditions was indeed dead, that the hard facts of evolution had proven conclusively that traditional beliefs were inadequate to explain or justify the human condition. Nevertheless, Kazantzakis did not abandon the notion of God altogether; rather, for him the term “God” represented a kind of omega point, a teleological focus for all of man’s endeavors toward self-fulfillment. In a curious twist of logic, Kazantzakis saw God as needing man as much as man needs Him, for God is created by man as the embodiment of all that man hopes to be. Ultimately, though, man must come to the realization that life is essentially meaningless, and that whatever meaning man gives to his existence is purely self-imposed. It is the fate of the truly heroic individual to pursue the quest for meaning in spite of his knowledge that the quest is futile, to raise a cry against this horrible fact that the only end for man is the abyss of nothingness that awaits him at death. It should not be surprising, then, to find that the poem Kazantzakis considered his greatest literary achievement deals with religious and philosophical questions, and that his hero wrestles with metaphysical issues.

The Odyssey

The reader first confronting Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey is most often struck by its length; twice as long as its Homeric namesake, the poem is consciously epic both in scope and in structure. Kazantzakis employed traditional conventions, but he did so in a way that was distinctly modern. The hero’s voyage and quest provide the structural framework in which dozens of seemingly disparate adventures reveal character and illuminate themes. The diversity of action and the cast of characters are exceptionally great, as is the geographical sweep of the poem: Odysseus begins his second great voyage in Greece, travels across the Mediterranean Sea and the African continent, and ends his wanderings in the Antarctic.

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel can best be classified as part of a tradition started soon after Homer composed his Odyssey, that of the “continuation” epic. The poem relates the further adventures of Odysseus, who as early as the fifth century b.c.e. was considered by readers of Homer’s epic to be ill suited to a life of leisure on Ithaca after twenty years of wandering about the Mediterranean basin. From his classical source, Kazantzakis has taken not only his main character, but also others whose stories he chooses to complete (Telemachus, Laertes). Kazantzakis has also gone to the Iliad for a handful of other Homeric figures (Helen of Troy, Menelaus, Idomeneus). Figures from Greek mythology such as Heracles, Tantalus, and Prometheus figure prominently in the work as well.

Following the long-standing tradition of Homeric continuations, Kazantzakis begins The Odyssey with his hero already returned to power in Ithaca, having killed Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus’s wanderlust leads him to reject quickly the domestic life on his island (his people, including Telemachus, find him unbearable as well). Odysseus assembles about him a band of adventurers with whom he departs on a journey he knows will end in death. In succession, he travels to Sparta, where he abducts a willing Helen, languishing at home with Menelaus; to Knossos, where he helps topple a society that, though once the cradle of Western civilization, is now...

(The entire section is 1,065 words.)